Into the groovy

Raving about Simon Reynolds' techno history, Generation Ecstasy

If there is a stylistic drawback here, it's that the freestyle flow between first-person reportage, music criticism, and cultural theorizing is sometimes a bit data-stormy. But as someone who never made it through Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari's Capitalism & Schizophrenia, I don't mind the academic shorthand, and it's tough to fault the ambition. To be sure, Generation Ecstasy is an extremely ambitious book--its punk equivalent would blend Jon Savage's England's Dreaming with parts of Dick Hebdige's Subculture: The Meaning of Style and a good chunk of The Trouser Press Record Guide. There is a huge amount of information and provocative musing, and no doubt many sections could be expanded into books themselves--the section on the early post-disco scenes of Chicago (birthplace of house), Detroit (ditto techno), and New York City (ditto garage) is worthy of one, if not three volumes, itself.

As a British-turned-transcontinental critic, Reynolds gets points for the time he spends not just on our first-gen progenitors, but on the fits and starts of the present-day U.S. underground. Because rave never became the pop phenomenon here that it was and is in the U.K., the domestic scenes have evolved much differently. For every one that has "burned out"--say, the first era of San Francisco and L.A. party cultures--there are a dozen other scenes sprouting up around the nation, often in the same cities. These scenes are young, overwhelmingly teenage, and infinitely less jaded than their U.K./U.S. elders. While they have their own histories, many are still sprouts. Reynolds doesn't really get past the surface of scenes in Orlando, Milwaukee, Cleveland, and Minneapolis. But he did slog through the mud with everyone else at the notorious Even Furthur Festival in Bumfuck, Wisc., back in '96, and even devotes a chunk of a chapter to it. I don't think he's gotten to the heart of American rave, a culture that may still be too nascent and atomized for sensible survey.

Obviously hard choices needed to be made for a book of this scope, and I'm sure some people will question the omission of a fuller treatment of disco and gay club history. More curious is the relative absence of American hip-hop, whose connection to rave, "electronica," and jungle has never been adequately discussed. As British phenomena, Tricky, Massive Attack, and the Bristol scene get their due, as does the Mo' Wax label and its Yank MVP DJ Shadow. But among U.S. rap legends, only the Wu-Tang Clan, for some reason, merit some substantive discussion of their music and a place in the discography. De La Soul maestro Prince Paul, Gang Starr jazzbo DJ Premiere, and Public Enemy's Bomb Squad production team--all of whom arguably informed the palette of U.K. rave and trip-hop as much as anybody--do not.

In the end, Generation Ecstasy centers on the British rave revolution (which, to be sure, was no less than a revolution), and the American scene necessarily takes a back seat to that discussion. All told, it's quite a tale; even for neophytes, Reynolds captures plenty of the thrilling madness of the scene, the drugs, the music, the fuck-the-system energy, and all their head-spinning implications. His aesthetic bias toward the hardest hardcore beats may not translate for some, and he can come off sounding kinda knee-jerk with respect to non-danceable, ambient, and "intelligent" techno and jungle as concepts. Personally, I feel he's a bit harsh with the Orb and Future Sound of London (well, Lifeforms, anyway). But he does give high-experimentalists like Aphex Twin and Oval props alongside electro-hardballers Joey Beltram and Ed Rush, and anyway, I'll be the last one to defend the new-agey, one-world fluff of Loop Guru or Sven Vath.

One last gripe: Why did the U.S. publisher of Generation Ecstasy cheat us out of the companion CD included with the U.K. edition? Maybe it was the same sort of licensing problems that prevented the stateside release of the essential U.K.-only CD companion to Greil Marcus' Lipstick Traces. Alas. One only hopes some spirited record labels start reclaiming and reissuing the music history contained in Reynolds' book, which at the moment stands as a definitive volume on a wide world of music.

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